By Ciara Balanza
My obsession with fear started with my cousin’s scary stories and turned into a competition with my brother. While convincing myself to enjoy horror, I created monsters that haunted me in the dark.
I was seven when I learned to be scared of the dark. My cousin was the one who first taught me that there are things to be scared of in this world. She is three years and five months older than me, so she readily asserted her age by recounting her experiences and giving me advice. I always think of her as an older sister, but perhaps an older sister would be less willing to have her younger sister grow up so quickly.
My cousin would tell me stories as we sat in the bright orange and slightly musty bedroom that used to be our father’s. Her renditions of Spanish folktales were quite straightforward, but I was already scared of the dark. Out of the contours of the furniture, it was easy to conjure shapes that resembled the supernatural. A handful of the stories she retold centered around nuns who were secretly killers. That summer, as my parents dragged me to historical churches in Valencia and then in Paris, I stared at the nuns in black habits sitting at church pews or kneeling at the altar. They looked old and kind, like the abuelas in Meliana, the town where my own Iaia lives. The abuelas also wore black, symbolizing the perpetual mourning of husbands who died decades before them. As with the abuelas, the only thing I feared about the nuns was that they’d disclose their disapproval of me to God.
And yet, murderous nuns haunted me in the dark. At night I was suspicious of every sound. I could barely enter the bathroom long enough to turn on the light. My cousin had told me the story of Verónica Jaja, the Spanish version of Bloody Mary. Even though the rules decreed I had to vocalize her name for her to appear, I was afraid she lurked behind the mirror at all times. At any moment, she could snatch me into the mirror dimension she inhabited.
My parents let us stay with our grandma in Spain during the time between their arrival and departure on the plane with us. Since we were parentless for a couple of weeks, my parents equated it with the independence our peers encountered during summer camp. However, on the nights when it was just my brother, my grandmother, and I in her apartment, I envied the protection campers benefited from by sharing a cabin with their counselors. Bedtime approached and my anxiety rose. Would we children or our elderly grandmother be better defenders from a possible invader? As I played out different scenarios, my brother noticed my insistence on closing our bedroom door and keeping my head turned toward it. He laughingly called me a scaredy cat. I tried to brush it off as a sign of his carelessness and naivety. Still, I felt hurt that he saw me as a coward, which I was not — I was just being prepared.
Like most things with my brother, we turned our fear into a competition. I insisted on watching scary movies, which he shied away from, always finding an excuse to watch a comedy instead. We argued: which genre was better at defying our parents’ reliance on Common Sense Media’s age recommendations? On the one hand, comedies were more likely to include swear words and innuendos, yet horror contained more enduring and gory images. While comedies were superficially inappropriate, horror would transform us into adults. But even when I won the debate and picked a scary movie, my brother would get distracted or fall asleep, avoiding the actual fear the movie was supposed to inflict.
I realized my brother was less scared of the real world than I was, but he was more alarmed by the imaginary harm inflicted by fictional villains. I worried that real people might murder us; he hated the anticipation of the murder scene in The Boy and Mama. “Watch the movie or you’re a scaredy cat,” I’d tease him. I haughtily advised him that exposure therapy could help him overcome his fear of horror movies. Secretly, I hoped the on-screen villains would force him to see the world with more trepidation.
That summer, I discovered my fear through the stories of my cousin and competitions with my brother. In the years that followed, I taught myself how to cultivate my own fear. I aspired to be a horror expert; I collected scary stories and told them to any friend willing to listen. I was the protagonist of the scary stories I made up and lived with the consequences. In the half-awake stages of sleep, I choreographed nightmares of a train arsonist and a child kidnapper. Before I woke up, I managed to outsmart the villain and save the victims. In second grade, I made myself believe I was cursed by the White Witch of Narnia, who compelled me to take cold showers, touch my toes a certain number of times every morning, and avoid the number three. In third grade, I found a friend who shared the same enchantment with the supernatural; she made me feel less lonely in my pursuit of fear. For an art assignment, we were supposed to make a collage out of magazine pages to represent our interests. While our classmates pasted pictures of tennis rackets and fashionable outfits, we cut out every head from the magazine — even Taylor Swift didn’t escape our scissors’ wrath. We smiled smugly at our decapitated collages, which clearly reflected our macabre personalities, but more likely made people think we were celebrity-obsessed.
In middle school, I continued to feel a need to prove that I wasn’t scared of anything by watching scary movies behind my parent’s back. I was definitely not scared of the dark, so I insisted on leaving the lights off while scrolling through my phone. Although I could successfully hide fear from myself, I was not so successful hiding it from others. Even today, whenever someone touches me from behind or makes a sudden noise, I jump. I tell them my reaction is due to surprise, not any underlying fear. But maybe unconsciously I still think there are murderous nuns and witches roaming around.
I wrote this piece for a creative non-fiction class this summer and workshopped it recently with my mentor. I knew I wanted to write about how fear has shaped my childhood, so I reflected on my own experiences and created a bulleted list of incidents. I choose to expand on certain anecdotes to create a cohesive story. My process was inspired by the personal epiphanies which I learned about in the DOTDASH MEREDITH & REAL SIMPLE workshop.
Ciara Balanzá is a high school junior located in NYC. She loves being outdoors as an avid runner and hiker. Since a young age, she has loved to curl up with a book and attempt her own hand at writing poetry and stories. Now she continues to craft creative writing and delves into journalism as an editor and writer for her school newspaper. She intends to go into medicine but wants to continue writing as an adult. Combining her interests in mental health advocacy and writing, she has founded a mental health magazine called Each Mind.